Olbermann News Commentaries Target Bush
Sunday, October 8, 2006; 5:08 PM
NEW YORK -- Keith Olbermann's tipping point came on a tarmac in Los Angeles six weeks ago. While waiting for his plane to take off he read an account of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's speech before the American Legion equating Iraq War opponents to pre-World War II appeasers.
The next night, on Aug. 30, Olbermann ended his MSNBC "Countdown" show with a blistering retort, questioning both the interpretation of history and Rumsfeld's very understanding of what it means to be an American.
It was the first of now five extraordinarily harsh anti-Bush commentaries that have made Olbermann the latest media point-person in the nation's political divide.
"As a critic of the administration, I will be damned if you can get away with calling me the equivalent of a Nazi appeaser," Olbermann told The Associated Press. "No one has the right to say that about any free-speaking American in this country."
Since that first commentary, Olbermann's nightly audience has increased 69 percent, according to Nielsen Media Research. This past Monday 834,000 people tuned in, virtually double his season average and more than CNN competitors Paula Zahn and Nancy Grace. Cable kingpin and Olbermann nemesis Bill O'Reilly (two million viewers that night) stands in his way.
Olbermann stood before Ground Zero on Sept. 11 and said Bush's conduct before the Iraq war was an impeachable offense. "Not once, in now five years, has this president ever offered to assume responsibility for the failures that led to this empty space and to this, the current and curdled version of our beloved country," he said.
His latest verbal attack, this past Thursday, criticized the president's campaign attacks on Democrats.
"Why have you chosen to go down in history as the president who made things up?" he asked.
Olbermann has become a hero to Bush opponents, who distribute video files and transcripts of his commentaries. One poster on the Daily Kos who's been trying to spread his own four-year boycott of cable news wondered: "Is it time to modify the boycott to allow for Keith's show `Countdown' _ and only his show?"
On the right, he's known as Krazy Keith and OlbyLoon, and the Olbermannwatch.com Web site is devoted to picking apart his words.
"Look in the mirror, Keith," an Olbermannwatch.com blogger wrote. "You have become that which you claim to despise _ a demagogue."
Olbermann has never been a Bush fan. He's gone on crusades before, pounding on alleged voting irregularities in Ohio in 2004 when the story went dry elsewhere. He's also waged war against O'Reilly. None of these match his most recent campaign for ferocity.
Liberal activist Jeff Cohen is thrilled for Olbermann's success, but admits that it's bittersweet.
Cohen was a producer for Phil Donahue's failed talk show. Less than four years ago Donahue's show imploded primarily because MSNBC and its corporate owners were afraid to have a show seen as liberal or anti-Bush at a time those opinions were less popular, he said.
In his new book "Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media," Cohen alleges that NBC News forced Donahue to book more conservatives than liberals and eventually wanted one of the nation's best-known liberal media figures to imitate O'Reilly.
Same time as Olbermann, same channel.
That Olbermann has been permitted to do what he's doing is evidence that "the political zeitgeist has changed dramatically in four years, and especially (at) MSNBC," Cohen said.
While it's true a different political atmosphere has helped Olbermann, NBC News senior vice president Phil Griffin disputed Cohen's interpretation that politics doomed Donahue. While MSNBC could be faulted for giving up on Donahue too fast, the show never caught its rhythm and was extremely expensive, he said.
"People try to ascribe motives to us, that somehow we're trying to keep liberals off the air and it's all about ideology," Griffin said. "If you get ratings, there's no issue."
Even before this fall, Olbermann's ratings had been on a slow rise as viewers connected with his entertaining way of delivering the news, Griffin said.
Early in his second tenure at MSNBC, Olbermann said he wanted to do a segment on whether some of the more heroic elements of former POW Jessica Lynch's rescue were exaggerated. He was told by NBC News executives that he had to balance it with a commentary by conservative radio host Michael Savage, and he refused. He was prepared to walk, he said, but it never came to that.
Olbermann said he hasn't spoken to NBC Chairman Bob Wright or anyone at corporate owner General Electric Co. about his commentaries. No one's asked him to tone things down; in fact, "I've had to calm them down a little bit," he said.
Such is the almighty power of the Nielsen meter.
"As dangerous as it can sometimes be for news, it is also our great protector," Olbermann said. "Because as long as you make them money, they don't care. This is not Rupert Murdoch. And even Rupert Murdoch puts `Family Guy' on the air and `The Simpsons,' that regularly criticize Fox News. There is some safety in the corporate structure that we probably could never have anticipated."
What he's doing now is little different from what he did in sports, he said. "You see the events happening before you and you describe them to the audience."
As for his hero worship on the left, Olbermann said, "I'd love to say it's totally irrelevant. I'd say it's 99 percent irrelevant."
More important to him was when he was approached by a Republican media operative on Sept. 11, who complimented him on the commentaries despite utterly disagreeing with them.
"The purpose of this is to get people to think and supply the marketplace of ideas with something at every fruit stand, something of every variety," he said. "As an industry, only half the fruit stand has been open the last four years."
On the Net:
EDITOR'S NOTE _ David Bauder can be reached at dbauder"at"ap.org